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  • Creative Writing: Translation, Bookkeeping, and the Work of Imagination in Colonial Kenya
  • Simon Gikandi
Creative Writing: Translation, Bookkeeping, and the Work of Imagination in Colonial Kenya By Derek R. PetersonPortsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. vii + 289 pp. ISBN 0-325-07131-4 paper.

This is a book on the interplay of texts and contexts in the making of colonial society in Central Kenya. Using extensive archival and oral sources, Peterson sets out to re-examine the colonial encounter between the British and the Gikuyu in the twentieth century and to probe the role of writing and reading in the imagination of communities against the pressures of Protestantism and colonial rule. Derek R. Peterson's goal, stated rather modestly, is to examine how colonial texts shaped the terms by which the Gikuyu negotiated their modernity and in turn how their idiom and moral economy shaped the emerging colonial library as it sought to account for African experiences. But this book is more than the textual negotiation of colonial encounters: It constitutes a major revision of the nature and grammar of colonialism in Kenya and provides a model for rethinking colonial relationships elsewhere. The social and intellectual history that Peterson presents in Creative Writing, in meticulous detail and elegant prose, is one in which a Gikuyu grammar of selfhood was retooled to meet the moral challenge of Protestantism. In the process, central categories in Gikuyu cultural grammar came to be translated in order to fit into the moral order authorized by the Christian missions. But the translation of Gikuyuness to fit into the idiom of Protestantism was not a one-way process. Indeed, the most original moments in this book are the ones in which Peterson traces how Gikuyu athomi (readers) translated colonial texts to fit into their own shifting moral and economic interest and how they remade the language of politics and intellectual debate.

Each of the chapters in this book takes up a key moment in which texts entered into a dialectical relationship with the rapidly changing context of colonial rule.Using the Church of Scotland Mission at Tumutumu as his case study, Peterson addresses important theoretical and political issues in colonial historiography, including the role of comparative religion in the shaping of moral geography, the work of translation in the making of colonial subjectivities, gender and oral politics, Mau Mau, and [End Page 187] Ngugi's later day intervention in debates on writing and orthography. Peterson had unprecedented access to the Church of Scotland archive, but what makes his book pioneering in the history of Protestantism in East Africa is his unique interpretation of the colonial library. The archive Peterson deploys in his book was already evident in previous works on the encounter between Scottish missionaries and Africans, most notably Brian McIntosh's 1969 PhD dissertation, "The Scottish Mission in Kenya, 1891–1923) and R. Macpherson's The Presbyterian Church in Kenya, (1970), but Creative Writing stands out in two senses: the first one is Peterson's competency in Gikuyu, which enabled him to access the intricate idiom that was crafted to respond to the demands of colonial translation; the second one is his ability to unlock the memories of local Tumutumu families and their alternative versions of colonial modernity.

As a good social historian Peterson follows the evidence where it leads him and this holds him back from pushing his narrative beyond the tangible; the literary scholar in me craves for more speculation. At the same time, however, it is because he is so closely guided by the evidence that Peterson is able to question some long-standing assumptions about the colonial encounter in Central Kenya. Creative Writing will be of seminal interest to literary and cultural historians because it questions two key assumptions that have hitherto driven the debate on language and colonialism in Kenya. It has been argued, for example, that colonialism privileged English, as the subject of instruction in schools, and thus alienated the African child from his or her natal landscape. This is a central claim in Ngugi's Decolonising the Mind. The story Peterson tells here is a different one: He shows that questions of language were at the center of Gikuyu...


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